How do I handle conflict between employees?

Posted in Business and entrepreneurship.

Interpersonal issues are not an uncommon occurrence. Not everybody meshes well together and sometimes that can lead to conflicts. When your employees start butting heads, business productivity can drop and workplace morale may waver. A good leader knows when to step in and help to resolve an issue. However, the first step to handling any sort of conflict is recognising the conflict.

Recognise the conflict

Conflict is not always visible and if you are only noticing it once legal action is taken or an angry outburst draws everyone’s attention, you are probably already late to the party. The point of resolving conflicts is to prevent them from escalating, not reacting once they have already escalated. Keeping a good eye and ear on the happenings in your business is important for keeping up to date with potential problems brewing.

Many people avoid open confrontation. Instead of speaking directly to the person of interest, they may instead skirt around the problem in conversation or speak about said person behind their back. If confronted about the issue, people may instead opt to put up a pleasant face. This is especially relevant when dealing with people higher up in the workplace hierarchy such as management.

Harassment and bullying often go unnoticed. For one, bullying is often associated with children so many ignore any signs of adult bullying. Furthermore, there is an expectation that older individuals should be able to deal with such problems and thus these instances go unreported. Many signs of harassment and bullying are so subtle you might even question whether it actually exists. Being in a position of seniority, many of these events will happen while you are not there. Not many will openly harass when there is a chance they could get caught and punished.

It is important to look out for signs of conflict. Some are easier to spot and some are harder, but the better you get at it, the more prepared you can be to step in if needed. Are there specific patterns? Has productivity dropped? Do customers complain during specific shifts? Are employees juggling work in such a way that they avoid another employee? Understand how your employees communicate. Observe their body language to see who they may dislike during meetings. Observe who they interact with and how they interact with them.

Communicate with your employees regularly. You don’t need to be in on all the gossip and rumours, but try to keep up with what is happening in the workplace. Be the kind of person that your employees will come to you with concerns or create a system that makes it easier for concerns to be voiced. Take these complaints seriously.

The work environment should be conducive to resolution

Resolving conflicts is only a band-aid solution if conflicts are a recurring theme in the workplace. A strenuous environment is bound to create conflicts. Stress can be a useful survival tool, but in the modern workplace too much stress can make employees irritable. Let’s be clear though, you are not your employees’ parents. Your job is not to guide their hands at every possible intersection. In conflict resolution, your main job is to make sure your employees can handle their own conflicts.

Encouraging open communication where complaints are heard and understood creates an environment where people may try to hear each other out instead of aggressing each other. Workplace culture plays an important role in this. If the environment fosters integrity and respect, your employees are likely to adopt those aspects. Better yet, be the example that you want them to follow.

Provide conflict resolution training. Focus on effective communication and problem-building skills. While this may not prevent any conflicts from arising, it surely does help to prevent them from becoming a problem.
Improve teamwork with team-building activities, clearly defined roles and expectations, and encouraged collaboration. Conflicts are less likely to arise when employees work with each other as opposed to against each other.

Know when to step in

Most conflicts should be resolved by the employees themselves, but at times you may need to step in before it becomes a bigger problem. Here are some reasons why you may want to step in instead of letting the conflict resolve on its own:

  • It has not resolved – If the conflict has been ongoing for a while, you may see a dip in work performance.
  • Recurring patterns – These may be due to work factors that need to be addressed or a toxic employee that wreaks havoc on others.
  • Disagreements become personal – It is important to maintain respect and when things start to get personal issues can quickly escalate.
  • Employees threaten to quit – Recruiting can be expensive and time-intensive so working out a solution is often easier.
  • Conflicts start to affect overall business morale – When conflicts start spreading and affecting other parts of your business it is problematic enough to greatly affect performance.

At times, you may need to call in outside help to resolve an issue. These are often only when a problem is big enough, but usually when you are not equipped to deal with it:

  • Employees are taking legal action – Unless you are a lawyer, it is best to bring in an expert.
  • HR does not have the time or resources to deal with the issue – This should be followed up with training so that they are able to handle it in the future.

Tackling the conflict yourself

When it’s time for you to step in then it is important for you to know how to resolve conflicts yourself. First, start off with clarifying the source and gathering more information. Ask your employees what the problem is, even those not directly involved. Find the root of the problem and work to fix that.

Find a safe and private place to talk. All parties should have ample time to speak and be heard. Try to remain unbiased when listening to both sides of the conflict. Encourage everyone to air out their problems calmly. Remember to maintain respect and integrity. Ask each side to restate their problem until everyone understands each side clearly. Avoid bringing others into the equation. If they are not involved, leave them out.

One effective problem-solving technique is to frame everything in terms of a shared goal. For example, you could frame each side’s problems in terms of the business. If everyone’s goal is the betterment of the business, doing this can help put their conflict into perspective. Once everyone agrees on a shared common goal, have them present solutions. As always, encourage employees to resolve their own conflicts before you present your own solutions.

Afterwards, keep track of the conflict. Note down repeated conflicts and patterns of behaviour. If mediation is not sufficient, consider rearranging teams or providing a clear resolution. Sometimes conflict resolution requires action from the higher-ups.